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Critical Thinking

On the Advantages of Paper Notebooks

Screen-free note-taking can help students learn how to organize their thoughts—and make assessing learning easier for teachers.

July 13, 2021
Ridofranz / iStock

We all saw it over and over during the pandemic year: In the face of remote and hybrid learning, students spent hours tethered to iPads and Chromebooks, all day, every day. While such technology thankfully allowed for online learning that would have been inconceivable a decade ago, excessive screen time has been linked to a host of deleterious effects.

In a bid to reclaim some balance between digital and analog learning, I will require students to use paper notebooks this coming year. Paper notebooks can help draw young people’s attention away from screens, and they offer several educational benefits.

Organization

Using a notebook compels students to become more deliberate in the organization and presentation of their notes. Plenty of apps provide ways to create and manage notes, but I’ve found that using notebooks places more responsibility on the students to find, adapt, and stick to a method that works best for them.

Moreover, when students zero in on and practice a note-taking system that can keep them organized, they’re building a lifelong skill that can help them process and transcribe data and facts efficiently, which is relevant for a variety of professions.

I plan on coaching my students on the Cornell Note-taking System so they can consistently organize takeaways from lectures and questions. I’ll also share with them how handwriting, legibility, and even aesthetics take on more importance when writing in a notebook and encourage them to develop symbols or shorthand techniques to quickly capture information from fast-moving lectures or slide shows.

Fewer Distractions

Students using devices to take notes are often bombarded with updates, messages, and notifications, plus they’re distracted by the ever-present temptation to search the web. Authentic learning, however, requires concentration and deep, uninterrupted immersion in a topic.

According to University of Michigan medical professor Michael Hortsch, constant distractions might inhibit the mind’s ability to retain information. Similarly, psychologist Daniel Goleman has noted that the ability to focus is “more important than IQ or the socioeconomic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success, and health.”

Students might assert that they can adeptly juggle a multitude of tasks. However, research indicates that humans are not wired to multitask: According to the Cleveland Clinic, multitasking makes us “less efficient and more prone to errors.”

Paper notebooks alone won’t solve the crisis of concentration or the multitasking problem. Students will continue to daydream and doodle, but carving out a tech-free time to take notes or answer questions on paper allows students a short reprieve from digital distractions.

Note-Taking by Hand

Taking notes by hand (as opposed to typing) aids learning and the retention of information. According to Cindi May, a professor of psychology at the College of Charleston, “Students who used longhand remembered more and had a deeper understanding of the material.”

A study by Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA compared students who typed notes with ones who took notes by hand. They found little statistical difference in either group’s ability to recall simple facts, but students who took notes by hand answered “conceptual application” questions—subjective, higher-level questions—better than those who typed notes. For teachers who don’t wish to mandate paper notebooks, there are note-taking apps such as Notability, Noteshelf, and GoodNotes that allow students to use a stylus to take notes by hand.

Whatever the method, taking notes by hand will also give students much-needed practice for college, where they may not be allowed to use electronics in the classroom.

Progress Monitoring and Grading

When I review my students’ notebooks, I can quickly see if they’re following directions and keeping up with the material satisfactorily or if they’re taking disorganized or incomprehensible notes. In the latter case, I can instruct them on how to take better notes. I may deduct points from the assignment if the student does not adhere to an orderly system. In one class, I made notebook grades equivalent to assessment grades, a great incentive for students to maintain organized, high-quality notes.

When I graded notebooks before Covid, once every two weeks I collected them (usually on test day). I randomly chose one set of questions I had assigned for homework or notes from a lecture I had given. I checked that each student had the answer or lecture notes in their notebook in the appropriate section, dated correctly, and in the style I had instructed them in. For instance, I required complete sentences for all answers. In the case of answers to textbook or in-class questions, I typically checked for correctness.

When I require and grade notebooks, I find that I limit the amount of grading I have to do, and grading, on the whole, becomes easier. Because students don’t need to turn in every assignment, I can check one, several, or all of the components of assignments in batches when they turn in their notebooks.

Teachers can grade notebooks in a multitude of ways: organization, completion, legibility, correct answers for questions, etc.

An Opportunity for Creativity

One might think that a traditional notebook excludes opportunities for the student to think creatively, but this is not the case. Ask students to pause, look at their notes, and sketch an image next to key points. (Drawing helps with retention and memory.) Try incorporating Doodle Notes, or have students transform their paper notebooks into colorful interactive notebooks.

I have asked students to create maps on blank paper, or label and color predrawn maps, before cutting them out and gluing them in their notebooks. Having students utilize not only a pen and paper for class, but also colored pencils, markers, tape, glue, and scissors, can benefit students by adding a tactile dimension to note-taking.

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